RSP Flashback: Cardinals WR Andre Roberts

Roberts will also benefit from Bruce Arians moving Larry Fitzgerald around. See why he should be a worthwhile patience play for the Cardinals.

The 2010 rookie class of wide receivers was a minefield for draft analysts. The strength of the class lay in its collective athleticism. For every Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas who have developed into play-makers there are the likes of Arrelious Benn, Carlton Mitchell, David Gettis, and Marcus Easley – eye-catching athletes who have struggled to integrate the skills of the position into their game.  Or in Danario Alexander’s case, stay healthy.

Yet there was a contingent of receivers who had average physical dimensions for the professional game, but their skills as receivers were the most promising aspect of their collective resumes. While there’s a school of thought that you can’t teach athleticism, I’m beginning to think that truism is relied upon too much. The downside of this is these players get drafted early, they need more development than they are often capable of absorbing at this level, and teams are more patient with them to “have the light come on.”

After a decade of study, I think teams need to spend more time looking at players who already know how to turn on the switch. I call this behavior a display of Integrated Skill Sets.
And I believe there should be a more qualitative effort to study them:

  • What are they for the position?
  • What’s difficult to learn about the position at the pro level?
  • Does the player know how to incorporate his athleticism into position’s technical demands?
  • Does the process what’s happening around him well enough to optimize his athleticism and skill?
  • What behaviors can help us more  project a player’s ability to integrate the demands of the pro game?

The players in this 2010 class who demonstrated the strongest display of Integrated Skill Sets that I didn’t mention were Golden Tate, Eric Decker, Emmanuel Sanders, Riley Cooper, Blair White, and Andre Roberts.  While White had a short-lived career, he’s an important player to mention because I think the one thing that the Colts player-personnel department did a fine job of identifying was players with Integrated Skill Sets.

I don’t know if they have anything defined as such when watching players, but even their misses were players who demonstrated a good feel for the game. White wasn’t inordinately big or fast, but he knew how to get open, read the field and opponents well, and he could make plays that required a combination of technique, spatial awareness in tight quarters, and physical toughness.  If you recall White’s first touchdown was the result of jogging to the Colts huddle and telling Manning what he saw the corner cheating on previous plays.

Ironically, many football people believe that you can’t teach athleticism, but I’m beginning to wonder if you can teach smarts, precision, and awareness in football players if they don’t have it by the time they reach the NFL. At the day gig, I’m doing a story on one of the oldest and most prestigious specialty academic graduate programs of its kind that teaches a specific set of skills that has so much value to the corporate world, I’ve had numerous MBA graduates tell me that if they knew this program existed they would have pursued it instead.

The reason is that employers are practically waiting in line to hire these graduates. But ask these employers what they want to see more with this training and it’s the graduate’s ability to integrate all of the skills they’ve learned and make decisions that change the business for the better. They want the school to teach things that can’t be taught (inspired and reinforced, maybe): intelligence, curiosity, and experience.

The NFL’s job market has its parallels. It takes a certain type of talent to be a good receiver for Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Matt Ryan. Elite physical skills can get you onto the field, but look at the players who most consistently move the chains in tough situations and the guys they’re leaning on display intelligence, curiosity, and awareness in their game. Say what you will about Randy Moss’ effort or personality, but Bill Belichick called him the smartest receiver he’s coached.

Andre Roberts is no Randy Moss when it comes to his athletic gifts, but he was my fifth-ranked receiver in 2010 and one of my favorites in this class. The 5’11”, 195-pound Roberts was on my short list of receivers most likely candidate to make an immediate impact. However, Roberts had so many uncharacteristic drops in camp that his rookie year was unfruitful.

This slow start only reinforces my view that NFL teams would be served well to look at integrated skill sets, because by the end of his second season Roberts’ quarterbacks and coaching staff believed he demonstrated enough to develop into a star in the slot. The hope is that the acquisition of Michael Floyd would eventually allow the Cardinals to use Roberts as a receiver who they can move around to take advantage of his skills.

The 2013 camp story line may be about coach Bruce Arians moving Fitzgerald around like Reggie Wayne, but think of Roberts as Arians’ new T.Y Hilton. Remember, if you move one receiver, you’re likely moving another. Hilton also benefited from getting moved around the formation. Roberts isn’t as fast as Hilton, but I compared him favorably to Greg Jennings.

Roberts is a small-school prospect with big-time game. He has great body control to make catches of errant throws, runs routes anywhere on the field, and has strong skills after the catch. He’s a versatile player and had one of the best punt returns I have seen in a couple of years. He can weave through traffic, set up blocks, and make strong cuts. What I really like his skill to defeat the jam on a consistent basis. I have seen projections from others that believe Roberts will be a slot receiver. I agree with those that say he will start his career there, but I would like to point out that Greg Jennings has nearly identical dimensions as Roberts. I think Roberts might be a better player than Jennings was at this stage of their careers. If Roberts joins a team with a veteran quarterback, he’ll be a candidate to make an immediate impact in 2010.

Roberts has lacked an established veteran for most of his career, but he continues to flash skills that I think a quarterback of Carson Palmer has the ability to fully exploit this year. Here is my 2010 report on Andre Roberts. While the jury is still out on him becoming consistent, productive starter, I think he’s a lot closer than many of his more athletically-inclined classmates and the reason is his flash of integrated skill sets.

For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.

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